'Lost' Monitor Lizard Rediscovered in Papua New Guinea

<em>Varanus douarrha</em> was first described for science in 1823, but the original specimen went down in an 1824 shipwreck.
Varanus douarrha was first described for science in 1823, but the original specimen went down in an 1824 shipwreck. (Image credit: Valter Weijola)

A monitor lizard lost to science in an 1800s shipwreck has been rediscovered on an island in Papua New Guinea.

The medium-size monitor, Varanus douarrha, was first identified by French naturalist René Lesson in 1823. The scientific name was inspired by the pronunciation of the lizard's name in Siar, the language of the people who share the lizard's home of New Ireland island. [Album: Bizarre Frogs, Lizards and Salamanders

The specimen of the lizard collected by Lesson went down in a shipwreck off the Cape of Good Hope in 1824, however, so the monitor lizard was never systematically studied. Scientists knew monitor lizards roamed New Ireland, but figured they were the common mangrove monitor species (Varanus indicus) found all over New Guinea. (There are about 90 species of monitor lizard worldwide.)

Not so, new research finds. Valter Weijola, a zoologist at the University of Turku in Finland, did fieldwork on the island in an effort to survey the monitor lizards there. He and his colleagues found that the monitor lizards there are both morphologically and genetically different from Varanus indicus. In fact, V. douarrha has been present on the Bismarck Islands, of which New Ireland is a part, for longer that V. indicus, the researchers reported April 26 in the Australian Journal of Zoology.  

The new monitor lizard is the only large animal endemic to the remote island of New Ireland. (Image credit: Valter Weijola)

V. douarrha is black with yellow speckles that are concentrated more densely on its underbelly. It grows to about 4.3 feet (1.3 meters) in length. For comparison, the largest monitor lizard — the Komodo dragon — can grow to 10 feet (3 m) long. V. douarrha is the only large native animal known to live on New Ireland, though fossils have been found of large flightless birds and rodents.

Last year, Weijola and his colleagues discovered another new monitor lizard, V. semotus, on Mussau Island, which is in the northern part of Papua New Guinea. The discoveries show that there are more endemic species, or native animals found nowhere else, on the islands than previously realized, Weijola said in a statement.

Original article on Live Science

Stephanie Pappas
Live Science Contributor

Stephanie Pappas is a contributing writer for Live Science, covering topics ranging from geoscience to archaeology to the human brain and behavior. She was previously a senior writer for Live Science but is now a freelancer based in Denver, Colorado, and regularly contributes to Scientific American and The Monitor, the monthly magazine of the American Psychological Association. Stephanie received a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of South Carolina and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.